Emma Lee reviews Kevin Higgins’ ‘The Colour Yellow and the Number 19’

The Colour Yellow & the Number 19′ by Kevin Higgins
Published by Nuascealta
ISBN 9798554753398

 

 

Subtitled ‘Negative Thoughts That Helped One Man Mostly Retain His Sanity During 2020’, this collection of poems and essays allows Kevin Higgins to explore life with a chronic illness, sarcoidosis, with his usual dash of dark, gallows humour. Yellow is the colour used on Ireland public signs during the pandemic and 19 a reference to Covid-19. Opening poem, ‘Normal’, starts

 

‘I wouldn’t have you back.
With your nice houses and good schools
on the better side of wherever.
You installed (or tried to) in each of us
the tendency to come out in a loud red rash
on the days we could find no one to be better than.
You were always issuing updates.
We downloaded them in our sleep.’

 

It’s suggesting that what was ‘normal’ before the pandemic, i.e. capitalism’s impetus to keep us working towards materialist goals and compete with our neighbours, should not be something we wish to return to post-pandemic. There’s chance for us to pause and figure out a better future rather than return to a competitive environment which had negative impacts on our well-being and for our planet. Before what that future might entail, there’s a personal essay, ‘Sarcoidosis and Me’

 

‘At last count I was using 46 % of my oxygen intake. I break into a sweat walking quickly up the stairs at home. I need a two hour lie down every day. Libido is greatly diminished. Anything that requires more than shallow breathing is a challenge. Some days I feel I never properly wake up at all, though this autumn I will again be teaching seven creative writing and poetry classes, as well as co-organising, with Susan, the regular Over The Edge literary readings here in Galway. Most of my recent poems have been satires on the crazy state of the world at the moment. I love all that, just wish I had more energy for it.’

 

Despite shielding, there are still necessary hospital visits. ‘Essential Hospital Appointment 16-4-2020’ ends,

 

‘On the way down the corridor out
you notice Our Lady has been replaced
by a small statue of Satan,
then wonder if you imagined it.
But there’s no one around to ask.

Apart from that,
everything is as it should be.’

 

Another essay suggests, ‘The Kind of City I Want Galway to be After Covid-19’, which was commissioned by ‘The Galway Advertiser’, that first deals with suggestions that some were better off on furloughed payments or subsidises than working, ‘Such disciples of economic common sense never question the legitimacy of jobs that don’t pay those who do them enough to cover the rent. One Covid era change that should stay in place is the increased rate of social welfare payments, particularly for young people who faced targeted cuts in their payments during the banking crisis’ and goes on to argue, ‘The dole is the most democratic arts grant Galway has ever seen. It gets money straight into the hands of the most potentially vibrant part of the arts community.’ Welfare benefits benefit society as a whole, not just the people in receipt of them, providing they are at a level that allow people do to more than exist.

 

It doesn’t take long for politics to come forward. ‘Look What I Found at the Triangle in Ranelagh’ is a satire on Frances Fitzgerald’s 2019 European Election campaign when she pretended to find a dog. After a list of increasing daft ‘lost’ items including ‘Noirin O’Sullivan’s phones’, Fitzgerald,

 

‘phoned the number and returned
them sound and safe to their new owner
Vulture Investments Incorporated of Delaware;
apart from the jokers off the Marie Celeste
who I plan to lock up in Direct Provision
for the next seven years,

and Ms O’Sullivan’s phones
which Garda Special Branch are, as I type,
frantically skipping red light after red light
to deposit permanently at the sweet smelling
end of a vacant slurry tank
somewhere in Tipperary.’

 

That satirical eye is also turned towards the UK and the election of Sir Keir Starmer as leader of the British Labour party, ‘The Advent of Mr Nothing’,

 

‘And the Brigadier General
can unclench in the knowledge
his plans for the war after next –
nowhere you’ve heard of yet –
will be given a white-toothed
statesman-like Yes.’

 

The former leader was a pacifist whereas Keir Starmer is cast as a would-be statesman who might support a war. Similarly ‘Waiting for Boris’, i.e. Boris Johnson the current British Prime Minister,

 

‘And why doesn’t the Office for National Statistics
give us the latest disastrous news?
Because Boris arrives today
and is bored by people who can add and subtract.’

 

The last poem, ‘The Shipping Forecast’ starts,

 

‘Back when the three giant liners,
Britannia, Eurasia, and Sweet Land of Liberty
weren’t all simultaneously
taking on tonnes of water,
you didn’t have to think
about what makes them float.’

and continues to muse

‘you look at the corduroy
jackets talking their opinions
and wonder if it’s better
to be like them;
to think the answer
might be to elect as captain
some demagogue made of blancmange
or, failing that, Joe Biden;

or if not knowing makes the shock
of the ocean hugging you
that bit worse?’

 

Ignorance is not to be envied. But neither do the experts know everything. Forecasting takes a mix of science and art and humility. Those who think they know the answers rarely do.

 

‘The Colour Yellow & the Number 19’ is more that just another book about the pandemic. Kevin Higgins indulges his natural instinct for satire but also offers a vision of a kinder future. One that doesn’t chain people to capitalist imperatives but offers a chance to slow down and take in the scenery. A world where society works towards the benefit of all and understands that helping one person enables them in turn to help others. When the competitive structure is removed, cooperation and community can come to the fore. People are not balance sheets and the pandemic has helped people see a new way of working, the interconnectedness and ripples created when resources are pooled. Kevin Higgins through his poems and personal essays asks if we really want to go back to the way things were pre-Covid-19, and, if not, how our communities might be structured for greater benefit.